In November 1999, Indonesia's new president, Abdurrahman Wahid, promised in both Jakarta and Washington to hold a referendum on autonomy in the secessionist province of Aceh. His government reportedly started negotiating with representatives of the Free Aceh movement -- something flatly unthinkable under Wahid's autocratic predecessor, Suharto.

Wahid's actions are hardly isolated. Indeed, they bespeak a new global strategy to contain ethnic conflict. Its essential principles are that threats to divide a country should be managed by the devolution of state power and that communal fighting about access to the state's power and resources should be restrained by recognizing group rights and sharing power. The conventional wisdom, of course, is that tribal and nationalist fighting is still rising frighteningly. But in fact, the rash of ethnic warfare peaked in the early 1990s -- countered, in most regions, by the application of these principles.

The brutality of the conflicts in Kosovo, East Timor, and Rwanda -- and the messiness of the international responses to them -- obscures the larger shift from confrontation toward accommodation. But the trends are there: a sharp decline in new ethnic wars, the settlement of many old ones, and proactive efforts by states and international organizations to recognize group rights and channel ethnic disputes into conventional politics. In Kosovo and East Timor, intervention was chosen only after other means failed. The fact that the United States, NATO, the United Nations, and Australia intervened was itself a testament to the underlying premise that managing ethnic conflict has become an international responsibility.

Evidence about the shift toward accommodation comes from tracking some 300 politically active ethnic and religious groups over half a century.1 The eruption of ethnic warfare in the early 1990s was the culmination of a long-term general trend that began in the 1950s and peaked shortly after the end of the Cold War. The breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia opened the door to new ethnic and national claims, and about a dozen new ethnic wars erupted in the erstwhile Soviet empire between 1988 and 1992. In the southern hemisphere, more than two dozen ethnic wars began or resumed in roughly the same period, most of them not directly related to the end of the Cold War.

By mid-decade, a strategic shift was under way. Over the course of the 1990s, the number of ethnic groups using violent tactics fell modestly (from 115 to 95). But a more important indicator was the balance between escalation and de-escalation: of the 59 armed ethnic conflicts under way in early 1999, 23 were de-escalating, 29 had no short-term trend, and only 7 were escalating -- including Kosovo. By the late 1990s, the most common strategy among ethnic groups was not armed conflict but prosaic politics.

Another way of tracking the trends is by timing when new episodes of ethnic and political conflict start. Two-thirds of all new campaigns of protest and rebellion since 1985 began between 1989 and 1993; few have started since. The decline in new protest movements foreshadows a continued decline in armed conflict. Recent history shows that ten years of nonviolent political action generally precede the start of a new ethnic rebellion. Since the number of new ethnically based protest campaigns has declined -- from a global average of ten per year in the late 1980s to four per year since 1995 -- the pool of potential future rebellions is shrinking.

A third perspective on the overall trends comes from examining wars of self-determination, such as those in Aceh, Sri Lanka, southern Sudan, and Nagorno-Karabakh. Their protagonists claim the right to their own communally based zones or demand unification with their ethnic kindred across state borders. These wars are among the most deadly and protracted of all ethnic conflicts, and their spillovers have posed the greatest regional security threats of the post-Cold War decade. But they also are being contained. Between 1993 and the beginning of 2000, the number of wars of self-determination has been halved. During the 1990s, 16 separatist wars were settled by negotiated peace agreements, and 10 others were checked by cease-fires and ongoing negotiations. Fewer separatist wars are being fought today -- 18 by my count -- than at any time since the early 1970s. This steep decline puts the Kosovo rebellion in perspective. The bombings and ambushes by the Kosovo Liberation Army in late 1997 started the only new ethnic war in Europe since 1994.

Less visible than the shift toward settling separatist wars is a parallel trend toward accommodating ethnic demands that have not yet escalated into armed conflict. Leaders of ethnic movements appeal to minorities' resentment about rights denied -- political participation, autonomy, and cultural recognition. In the 1990s, separatists almost always justified such claims by invoking international norms. But minority groups are doing better these days, so such appeals now sometimes fall on deaf ears. Discrimination eased for more than a third of the groups monitored by the Minorities at Risk Project between 1990 and 1998, mainly because governments formally recognized and guaranteed their political and cultural rights. The new democracies of Europe, Asia, and Latin America were especially likely to protect and promote minority rights. Even authoritarian governments were not immune to this trend, especially in Asia. Vietnam and Indonesia both lifted some restrictions on their Chinese minorities, although for reasons that had more to do with improving relations with mainland China and maintaining access to Chinese capital than any newfound fealty to group rights. Still, the overall trend is unmistakable: ethnic conflict is on the wane.


No "invisible hand" guided the global decline in serious ethnic conflict during the 1990s. Rather, it was the result of concerted efforts by a great many people and organizations, including domestic and international peacemakers and some of the antagonists themselves. Relations between ethnic groups and governments changed in the 1990s in ways that suggest that a new regime governing minority-majority relations is being built -- a widely held set of principles about how to handle intergroup relations in heterogeneous states, a common repertoire of strategies for handling crises, and an emerging domestic and international consensus on how to respond to ethnic repression and violence.

The first and most basic principle of this emerging regime is recognizing and actively protecting minority peoples' rights. This means freedom from discrimination based on race, national origin, language, or religion; it also entails institutional remedies that organized ethnic groups can use to protect and promote their collective cultural and political interests. A corollary is the right of national peoples to exercise some autonomy within existing states. After all, it follows that if minorities who make up a majority of one region of a multiethnic democracy have the right to protect and promote their collective interests, they should have the right to local or regional self-governance.

Western democracies have taken the lead here. After World War II, the Atlantic democracies emphasized the protection of individuals, but during the early 1990s, Western advocates shifted their emphasis from individual rights to the collective rights of national minorities. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe adopted standards in 1990-95 that prohibit forced assimilation and population transfers, endorse autonomy for minorities within existing states, and acknowledge that minority claims are legitimate subjects of international discussion at both U.N. and European regional organizations.

Virtually all European democracies have implemented these principles. In the first stage of democratization in postcommunist Europe, some ethnic leaders manipulated democracy to stoke nationalist passions at the expense of minorities like the Russians in the Baltics, the Hungarians in Slovakia and Romania, and the Serbs in Croatia. In most of these countries, a combination of diplomatic engagement by European institutions and elections checked the new wave of discrimination. The status of Hungarians in Slovakia and Romania improved markedly in the late 1990s, when old-line communists-turned-nationalists were ousted by coalitions that included ethnic parties. European diplomatic initiatives and OSCE missions helped persuade Baltic nationalists to moderate their treatment of Russians. Croatia's new, more moderate government today promises to respect the minorities that suffered from former President Franjo Tudjman's ultranationalism. That leaves Serbia as the last holdout, and once Slobodan Milosevic's successor takes office, the Serbian government, too, will probably give more than lip service to minority rights.

For several reasons, however, creating autonomy within the state for minorities is harder than simply banning discrimination. Most governing elites want to hold on to central authority. Many also fear that autonomy will lead to outright secession. Finally, negotiating arrangements that satisfy all parties and address each situation's unique quirks is not easy.

The second fear -- autonomy as a slippery slope -- is not supported by the facts on the ground. In very few contemporary instances did negotiated autonomy lead to independence. Sometimes an autonomous regional government pushes hard for greater authority, as the Basques have done in Spain. But the ethnic statelets that won de facto independence in the 1990s -- Somaliland, Abkhazia, the Trans-Dniester Republic, and Iraqi Kurdistan -- did so in the absence of negotiations, not because of them. Those truly looking to reduce ethnic bloodshed should embrace autonomy, not fear it.

There are now many models of autonomy agreements to draw on. The best-known such pacts were reached through negotiated settlements of wars of self-determination, like the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization and Northern Ireland's Good Friday agreement. Less has been written about the conflict-containing agreements that established a federal state for India's Mizo people in 1986, an autonomous republic for the Gaguaz minority in Moldova in 1994, and regional autonomy for the Chakma tribal group in Bangladesh's Chittagong Hills in 1997.

Some authoritarian leaders have also recognized that negotiations can end protracted conflicts. In the mid-1990s the junta that rules Burma concluded cease-fire agreements and offered concessions that checked protracted separatist rebellions by the Kachin and Mon peoples of northern Burma, although similar efforts failed to end resistance by the more numerous Shans and Karens who live in the south and east of the country.

In most recent wars of self-determination, fighting usually began with demands for complete independence and ended with negotiated or de facto autonomy within the state. There are many reasons why most ethnic nationalist leaders are willing to settle for 50 cents (or less) on the dollar, but it usually comes down to being strategically and politically overmatched. Nationalists willing to continue fighting for total independence, like the rebel leaders in Chechnya and East Timor, are rare. Central governments, on the other hand, tend increasingly to conclude that it is cheaper to negotiate regional and cultural autonomy and redistribute some funds than it is to fight endless insurgencies -- especially when other states and international organizations are encouraging them to negotiate. The Turkish government's obdurate resistance to organized Kurdish political participation has become an anachronism; even Saddam Hussein is more open to cooperation with (some) Kurdish groups than Turkish nationalists are.

If the parties in separatist wars recognize that the costs of accommodation are probably less than the costs of prolonged conflict, it is only a short step to mutual decisions to settle after an initial show of forceful resolve rather than after prolonged warfare. Gagauz and Moldovan nationalists came to such a conclusion in 1992, as did Tuareg rebels and the governments of Mali and Niger in the mid-1990s. Nationalist Serbia became the pariah state and the bombing range of Europe in 1999 precisely because it refused to negotiate with the Kosovars throughout the 1990s and (most immediately) blatantly violated principles about group rights accepted elsewhere in the region.

Protecting collective rights is one of the three elements of the new preferred strategy for managing ethnic heterogeneity. Democracy is another; it provides the institutional means whereby minorities in most societies secure their rights and pursue their collective interests. Of course, other institutional mechanisms can protect groups' interests -- take, for example, the communal power-sharing arrangements found in many nondemocratic African states. Nonetheless, European-style democracy is widely held to be the most reliable guarantee of minority rights. It is, after all, inherent in the logic of democratic politics that all peoples in heterogeneous societies should have equal civil and political rights, and democracy also implies resolving civil conflicts by peaceful means.


A third element of this new regime is the principle that disputes over self-determination are best settled by negotiation and mutual accommodation. One of democratic Russia's most important but least-noticed achievements has been its negotiation of power-sharing agreements with Tatarstan, Bashkiria, and some 40 other regions in the Russian Federation, only some of which have non-Russian nationalities. The agreement between Russia proper and Tatarstan went the greatest symbolic distance: strikingly, it actually treated the parties as equals. (This pact could and should have been a model for settling the dispute between Moscow and Chechnya, but Chechen leaders were interested only in total independence.)

The principle that serious ethnic disputes should be settled by negotiation is backed up actively by most major powers, the U.N., and some regional organizations, especially in Europe and Africa. These entities mix diplomacy, mediation, sweeteners, and threats to encourage accommodation. Preventive diplomacy is widely popular -- not only because early engagement can be cheaper than belated crisis management but because it is the preferred instrument of the new regime. Coercive intervention, as in Kosovo, is the international system's response of last resort to gross violations of human rights and to ethnic wars that threaten regional security.

Four regional and global forces reinforce the trend toward accommodation in mixed societies. First is the active promotion of democratic institutions and practices by the Atlantic democracies. Modern democracies fight one another rarely and temper their repression against internal opponents. Before-and-after comparisons of national and minority peoples in new democracies show that their status usually improves substantially during democratic transitions.

A second buttressing factor is engagement by the U.N., regional bodies, and interested nongovernmental organizations on behalf of minority rights. International entities such as the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the Organization for African Unity, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference have often used diplomacy and mediation to soften their members' policies toward minorities and move ongoing conflicts toward agreement. The Organization of the Islamic Conference, not usually considered a peacemaker, was for two decades the key international player supporting a negotiated settlement to the Muslim Moros' separatist war in the Philippines.

Third is the virtually universal consensus among the international political class -- the global foreign policy elite -- in favor of reestablishing and maintaining global and regional order. Empire-building is out of fashion. Interstate rivalries in the 1990s focused mainly on economic productivity and competition for markets, and wars of any stripe threaten regional order and prosperity. Hence the U.N., the United States, regional powers, and the regional organizations of Europe, Latin America, and Africa have sought to contain local conflicts by preventive measures where possible and by mediation and peacekeeping where necessary.

Finally, the costs of ethnic conflict have become evident to both governing elites and rebel leaders. The material and social costs of civil war have been bitterly acknowledged in countries where postwar settlements are taking hold -- in Bosnia, the Philippines, Mozambique, and elsewhere. The lesson drawn by outside observers of the mid-1990s war in Chechnya was that the Russian military could not defeat highly motivated guerrillas -- remember Afghanistan. But the lesson the protagonists in Chechnya should have learned was that the war was not worth fighting; neither side gained much that could not have been won through negotiations before the Russian tanks rolled. Caution about the likely costs of war and the unlikely chances of victory on either side probably helped check ethnic rebellions elsewhere on Russia's periphery and in most Soviet successor states. Nato's spring 1999 campaign against Serbia conveyed a similar message to other states whose leaders have refused to compromise with ethnic nationalists. The lesson has reached as far as Beijing, where the Kosovo crisis reportedly prompted Communist Party officials to begin drafting alternative policies for dealing with restless Tibetans and Uigurs.


Of course, conventional wisdom sees things somewhat differently. Most Western policymakers and foreign affairs analysts view ethnic conflict as getting worse, not becoming more manageable. What about communal warfare and genocide in central Africa, ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, Muslim and Hindu fundamentalism, or regional rebellions in Indonesia? The answer is a paradox. Objectively, there are substantially fewer such conflicts now than in the early 1990s. But they now get more public attention -- precisely because they challenge the emerging norms that favor group rights and the peaceful accommodation of ethnic conflicts. Bloody crises also rivet Western publics because they threaten the comforting assumption that the "international community" can guarantee local and regional security.

Why, then, was Kosovo wracked by massacres and ethnic cleansing despite international doctrines of minority rights, past examples of ethnic conflicts that were successfully settled, and a world willing to get engaged? For starters, in no sense was ethnic war in Kosovo unprecedented. Indeed, Kosovo was the most dreaded flash point in post-Bosnia Europe. Empirically, a decade of political activism and protest typically precedes ethnic wars. Kosovo fit the pattern neatly: its ethnic Albanians resisted the dissolution of the province's regional government in 1989 by forming a parallel government, but the first Kosovar terrorist attacks did not begin until 1997. Large-scale armed conflict began a year later. Milosevic's ultranationalist policies and intransigence fundamentally contradicted European and international principles about minority rights, but international attempts to prevent calamity faltered. True, the Bush administration warned the Yugoslav government in December 1992 not to repress the Kosovars, but the issue was not addressed in the 1995 Dayton Accord that the Clinton administration negotiated to end the war in Bosnia, and the Serbs' October 1998 preparations for another round of ethnic cleansing elicited little international response. The failure, then, was not so much due to international spinelessness as to sheer disbelief that the Serbs would try it again.

The world system emerging from the settlement of ethnic and regional conflicts is more complex than its Cold War predecessor. So containing ethnic conflict requires more foresight and better-coordinated international responses, as demonstrated in Kosovo and East Timor. The new liberal wisdom holds that sovereignty can be trumped by humanitarianism and that the international cavalry will ride to the rescue of minorities who face genocide. Chechen and Tibetan nationalists remain unconvinced.

The liberal vision is still too neat. Better to think of the system as multilayered, with three interdependent sets of political actors: states; ethnic movements, some within an existing country and some straddling several of them; and the regional and international organizations that are increasingly responsible for managing relations between the other two. States remain the paramount actors, and the powerful among them can still get away with the sort of thing that the Russians are doing in Chechnya and the Chinese are doing in Tibet. But most states, even major powers, are held back by a growing network of mutual obligations regarding minorities, regional organizations, multinationals, and world bodies. Countries that ignore those obligations risk their future world status, prosperity, and amicable foreign relations.

The new regime is not fully developed, and a depressingly long list of states and ethnic movements that reject its principles will challenge it violently. Few states in the Muslim world, for example, are prepared to grant full political and cultural rights to religious minorities. Some protracted ethnic conflicts are almost immune to regional and international influence. The struggles in places such as Afghanistan and Sudan probably will remain intractable unless and until one side wins decisively. The odds are against durable settlements for the longstanding conflicts between Kurdish nationalists and Iraq and Turkey or the containment of communal strife between Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda. Some ethnic wars are being held in check by cease-fires and contested agreements that could easily come apart -- consider Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iraqi Kurdistan, Bougainville, or Northern Ireland. South Asia alone is home to a dozen thorny ethnic and political conflicts. Since the 1950s, India has faced a series of separatist challenges, especially in the northeast; no sooner has one movement been accommodated than another emerges. Some conflicts that have been "settled" in the traditional way -- by overwhelming force -- could flare up again; think of what Burma did in the Karen and Shan states, or of Indonesia's crackdown in the provinces of Aceh and Irian Jaya, or China in Tibet. Repression without accommodation regularly leads to renewed resistance and rebellion, as it did in Indonesia after Jakarta began its democratic transition. So international efforts should focus on helping rulers negotiate with rebellious groups, providing both sides with incentives for choosing autonomy rather than secession.

The greatest challenges to the new international way of containing ethnic conflicts are in Africa. In a vast conflict zone from Sudan and Ethiopia through the Great Lakes region to Angola's highlands and the Congo, rivalries between states and communities form an extraordinarily complex web. The U.N. hopes to send 500 observers and 5,000 peacekeepers to the region to help implement the Lusaka accords and thereby stop the fighting, but this plan ignores the blunt political reality that many of the armed bands do not want their conflicts managed. If the Lusaka accords and the peacekeeping mission were to fail, the credibility of future international attempts to ease the area's misery would be undercut. Instead, the world should concentrate on trying to negotiate settlements on the conflict zone's periphery, notably in Sudan and Angola.

Other challenges lie in West Africa. Revolutionary and ethnic wars have been doused in Niger, Mali, and Liberia but sporadically flare up in Sierra Leone and Chad. The greatest risk here has been that of civil war in Nigeria, which is divided between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south and has many of the factors that elsewhere predict ethnic warfare -- a legacy of repressive rule, the emergence of militant ethnic nationalist groups, and a lack of international engagement. The prospects of ethnic war in Nigeria depend on how well its transition to democracy goes. The highest priority for preventive engagement in West Africa should therefore be supporting Nigeria's democratization, in the course of which the Ijaw, Ogoni, and Yoruba peoples' grievances against the northern-dominated regime should be addressed.

This survey highlights the highest-priority ethnic conflicts, which urgently need remedies and preventive action. But by whom and how? The answers depend on which actors have the will, the political leverage, and the resources to act. Kosovo, East Timor, and Chechnya illustrate that the reach of the new strategy for managing ethnic conflict depends equally on whether that doctrine is accepted by the combatants and on the will and ability of regional and international organizations to implement it. International and regional bodies are most likely to effectively prevent conflict in areas where the Western powers have vital interests, which means Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. African and Asian conflicts are more remote and therefore more resistant to outside influence. The strategy there should be to encourage and assist regional organizations, especially the Organization of African Unity and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (which, if quietly encouraged, may expand beyond its usual agenda of regional economics). When prevention fails or is not pursued in the first place, the international challenges are different: providing humanitarian aid and keeping the fighting from spreading throughout the region.


The evolution of good international practices for managing ethnic conflict is one of the signal accomplishments of the first post-Cold War decade. It also has had some unintended consequences. The most obvious is that accommodation of ethnic claims encourages new groups and political entrepreneurs to make similar demands in the hope of gaining concessions and power. Some latecomers are the Cornish in Britain, the Reang tribe in India, and the Mongols in China -- each of which is now represented by organizations calling for autonomy and more public resources. But the pool of potential ethnic contenders is not infinite, and we have already heard from most of them. Ethnic identity and interest per se do not risk unforeseen ethnic wars; rather, the danger is hegemonic elites who use the state to promote their own people's interests at the expense of others. The "push" of state corruption and minority repression probably will be a more important source of future ethnic wars than the "pull" of opportunity.

A less obvious threat is the potential emergence of alternative forms of popular opposition. During the last several decades, the entrepreneurs behind ethnic political movements tapped into a reservoir of resentment about material inequality, political exclusion, and government predation and channeled it to their purposes. They drew on some of the same grievances that once fueled revolutionary movements. In fact, some conflicts are hybrids: ethnic wars when seen through one set of analytic lenses and revolutionary wars when seen through another. Leftists in Guatemala recruited indigenous Mayans to fill the ranks of a revolutionary movement, Jonas Savimbi built his rebel movement through the support of Angola's Mbundu people, and Laurent Kabila led a revolutionary army to Kinshasa made up of Tutsi, Luba, and other disaffected tribal peoples in the eastern Congo.

The larger point is that popular support for mass movements is to some degree fungible. All but a few of the Cold War's socialist movements failed, discrediting revolutionary rhetoric and action for most of their target audience, the urban and rural poor. Ethnic-national movements have met greater political success, but their appeal is limited to groups with some prior sense of cultural identity. And since ethnic conflicts tend to end in compromise, disillusionment is inevitable. So the field is open for other forms of mass opposition that may supplant ethnic movements, just as ethnic nationalism in its time preempted most revolutionary movements. Faith, in the form of militant Islam, Christianity, or Buddhism, can also motivate mass movements: consider the Falun Gong, a personal and spiritual movement whose persecution by the Chinese government virtually ensures its politicization. Today, class, ethnicity, and faith are the three main alternative sources of mass movements, and class-based and religious movements may well drain away some of the popular support that now energizes ethnic political movements. With a little bit of luck and a great deal of international engagement, ethnic conflict's heyday will belong to the last century.

1 All evidence herein comes from the Minorities at Risk Project. The data and interpretations are reported in greater detail in the author's forthcoming book, Peoples Versus States: Minorities at Risk in the New Century, forthcoming from the United States Institute of Peace Press. Coded data, chronologies, and assessments for all groups are available from the project's Web site at www.bsos.umd.edu/cidcm/mar.

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  • Ted Robert Gurr is Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland. He directs the Minorities at Risk Project at the university's Center for International Development and Conflict Management.
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